12/30/2005 1:00AM

NCAA analysis: Bowling in the new year


LAS VEGAS - Four bowl games Friday, three more on Saturday, a respite on Sunday for the NFL, then six more bowls on Monday - it's a great way to bring in the New Year for college football fans.

These are the five games I like over the weekend:

Sun Bowl (Friday)
Northwestern (+3) vs. UCLA

Both teams have explosive offenses averaging over 400 yards and 30 points per game and mediocre defenses that allow the same, so a shootout is very, very likely as evidenced by the over/under of 74 1/2 points, highest of the bowl season. The Bruins are led by quarterback Drew Olsen and running back Maurice Drew, and they should get their yards. But the Wildcats possess a more balanced offense that has quarterback Brett Basanez spreading the ball around and I think that balance will be the difference. Northwestern needs just a few defensive stops and should get it if linebacker Tim McGarigle is able to run down Drew on occasion. This is also a game where it probably means more to Northwestern than UCLA, which had national title hopes for the better part of the season.

PLAY: Northwestern for 1 unit.

Liberty Bowl (Saturday)
Fresno St. (-7) vs. Tulsa

Tulsa backers will obviously point to the fact that the Golden Hurricane blew out Central Florida in the Conference USA title game and that Central Florida took Nevada, which had beaten Fresno St., to overtime in the Hawaii Bowl. But remember that Fresno's loss to Nevada came a week after its near upset of USC. Frankly, I think that effort took a lot out of the Bulldogs both emotionally and physically and they weren't the same team even the following week in their loss to Louisiana Tech. But now with three weeks to prepare, I think coach Pat Hill gets his team remotivated. Fresno should control the lines of scrimmage and coast to an easy victory.

PLAY: Fresno St. for 1 unit.

Outback Bowl (Monday)
Iowa (+2) vs. Florida

Both these teams lost early in the season to take themselves out of the national title picture and kind of flew under the radar, but put together decent seasons. Their team stats are pretty similar and it's pretty much assumed that the only reason Florida is favored is because this game is being played in Tampa. But I think Iowa is the slightly better team at this point with Drew Tate at quarterback (19 touchdown passes, only six interceptions) and unheralded running back Albert Young (1,300 yards, eight touchdowns). The Iowa defense isn't as statistically strong as Florida, but five of the nation's top 14 scoring defenses are from the SEC (Florida is No. 14) and I think that's a case of offense being down in the conference, and that won't be the case with Iowa.

PLAY: Iowa for 1 unit.

Fiesta Bowl (Monday)
Notre Dame (+4 1/2) vs. Ohio St.

Charlie Weis has done a great job in his first year at Notre Dame and I'm a believer. Ohio St. is among the most talented teams in the country, but if Notre Dame could nearly beat USC, they can clearly play with Ohio St. In addition, each time Weis has had extra time to prepare for an opponent (Pitt in the season opener, a 41-21 rout; USC in a 34-31 near upset; Tennessee in a 41-21 rout), the Irish have come out ultra-prepared and ready to play. I see no reason that should change here. The Irish defense will come with its usual team effort to contain the Buckeyes' weapons and the offense will spread the ball around with Brady Quinn running the gameplan just like Tom Brady did for all those years under Weis with the Patriots.

PLAY: Notre Dame for 1 unit.

Sugar Bowl (Monday)
West Virginia (+7) vs. Georgia

With the earlier play against Florida, I guess you can say this play also has an anti-SEC slant. Georgia was No. 4 in the nation by allowing just 14.6 points per game, but as stated above, that's not too surprising while playing in the offensively-challenged SEC. Georgia has the most exciting player on the field in quarterback D.J. Shockley, but West Virginia averages 262 rushing yards per game and is more consistent and that should get the job done.

PLAY: West Virginia for 1 unit.

Bowl bankroll record: 5-3 for a net profit of 1.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) after winning with Oklahoma + 3 1/ 2 vs. Oregon on Thursday night.